Monthly Archives: May 2015

Schemes

Now, I like a birthday party as much as the next person (so long as it’s not mine, that is, I can’t handle all that hostess pressure, that will-they won’t-they turn up/get on/bring a bottle business); I’ll happily stand about for a couple of hours finishing up the egg sandwiches and cheesy pineapple cocktail sticks, picking over the Wotsits and Monster Munches with the best of them, but there is one thing I am glad to see the back of.  Well, two, if you count party bags.

It’s presents that have the capacity to make me sigh the sigh of the long suffering.  Not that I would ever look a gift horse in the mouth, you understand; my house is stuffed to the rafters with gifts that I neither bought or particularly liked because I cannot bring myself to be churlish enough to pass them on.  Thank you letters have been sent and received.  No, I’m glad that they have reached the age when Birthday Money has become the thing to give and to receive.

My children, spoilt brats that they are, like nothing better than squandering their tenners on things of which I disapprove (over priced Minecraft tat is the latest object of desire), and I, glad as I am to allow them the opportunity to throw good money away on the latest rubbish that I have not had to earn with the sweat of my brow or the loss of my voice, am happy to follow them round the toy store as they chew their lips in consternation when finally presented with a real choice.

It’s an interesting education, watching them make their way up and down the aisles.  Sam, true to form, finds the cars and lorries; although now that he has discovered Eddie Stobart and internet shopping he has become a little less determined to spend his money on the first traffic related toy to catch his eye.  A, now that he has grown out of Thomas the Tank Engine (although he does retain a residual fondess for the cheery blue engine) wanders up and down the Lego aisle, gazing longingly at the most expensive sets (to the accompaniment of ‘when you have that amount of money you may have what you like, you could always choose to save it’).  And L, she who looks at Frozen with the face of one horrified and won’t go near the Barbie pink, peruses the computer games (and the Lego and the Minecraft).

Frankly, it’s a relief.

Sam’s presents were never a problem, to be fair.  He has always had such a clearly expressed love affair with the wheeled vehicle that nine times out of ten, that’s what he got.  Except when he got a craft kit.  The worst ones were the ones where you had to make a fully functional tank out of matchsticks, closely followed by the paint-your-own moneybox.  Thankfully, nobody ever gave him a fashion jewellery set (although he was once invited to a makeover party); no, that honour comes to my daughter, who accepts such offerings with a polite smile and never looks at them again.

Oh, I understand why people buy them, I really do.  They want to give an active gift, one that will last for longer than the few minutes it takes to rip the wrapping paper off, extract the item from the box with great anticipation and break it, something that will keep them busy and entertained in a productive manner.  I’ve been known to purchase the odd spirograph myself.  When I was a child I liked nothing better than those pencil cases that were the same size as a book; when you zipped them open there, contained within was a collection of delights, all in rainbow order.

I feel the same way about those craft kits as I do about dressing up clothes.  It’s no longer acceptable these days to clack about the garden in your mother’s best high heels, with brass curtain rings on elastic bands around your ears and a funny shaped hat.  A bit of net curtain just won’t do as a wedding veil, a bucket doesn’t cut it for a helmet.  No, today, if the toy stores are to be believed, dressing up is only right if you are a fireman, a policeman, a doctor or a nurse, or an Elsa, a Snow White, a Mr Incredible or a Spiderman complete with sponge six-pack.

The thing is, though, is that once you are dressed as Snow White, or Cinderella, or Ariel or Belle, that’s all you can ever be.  That jewellery kit will only make fashion jewellery and that money box will only ever be a money box, the decoration of which will forever disappoint you because you will never be able to make it look like the picture on the box.  The Lego set, it seems, these days, will only make the fire engine, or the helicopter or, most cynically, Lord Business’ melting chair.

I used to think I was alone in my antipathy to kits.  Until, that is, I fell into conversation with a friend of mine, a friend who is not only a real life artist, but one who is also a teacher.  We stood together, one windswept afternoon, waiting for our daughters to emerge from the school building (what do they do in there?  Why does it take them so long?), engaging in the sort of philosophical debate you wouldn’t believe goes on out there in the playground, and she told me what she does with them.

She chucks away the bits she doesn’t need and mixes up the rest.

I like that.

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The Secret Teacher

I usually quite like reading The Guardian’s Secret Teacher series.  Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t; but if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, or even if today is your first visit, you’ll soon know that I’m all for hearing the voices of the unheard.  And sadly, in today’s climate of anxiety, despite how they are when you meet them in real life, with their loud voices and commanding personalities, teachers’ views in public spaces are muted at the very least.  But this one, with a title guaranteed to catch my interest, being as it’s about inclusion and all, touches me a little too close, and not in a good way.

Oh, I understand the difficulties of teaching children with challenging needs in a mainstream classroom.  I’ve done it, and it is indeed challenging, even when you have another adult in the room to lighten the load.  Children lying down on the floor at the front of the room, or breaking out into fights while you are trying to teach them what a noun is, or a fronted adverbial, is not an easy thing.  Planning activities that get everyone thinking but avoiding panic (and therefore stropping and not thinking) isn’t easy either.  When behaviour gets extreme, and plans get abandoned for whatever reason, be it a change of staff, or unrealistic expectations, or a lack of communication and/or support, or because at first it seems to make no difference, it’s hard.  Very hard.  And, honestly, some children just don’t fit into mainstream schooling – I know because my son is one of them.

Feeling powerless, caught in a riptide of other people’s expectations, or immovable policy is never an easy feeling.  Get any group of teachers in a room, be it classroom, staffroom, training room, pub, wherever; throw in the word OFSTED and watch what happens.  It won’t be long before ranting and railing and wailing and gnashing of teeth and generally despairing at the state of statistics and one-sized-fits-all classrooms, teachers and children takes over, and anything else you wanted to discuss falls by the wayside, never to be taken up again.

And there’s that other thing about teachers that isn’t apparent until you are one – the feeling that you are never doing a good enough job.  Oh, I don’t mean the pressure of inspections or observations, although that certainly has a part to play; I mean the desire we all have to do our best for the children we serve.  Teachers often complain of those times when the domination of one child, for whatever reason, means that they have less time to spend with the others, who need them too.  We are always walking a tightrope line, balancing the needs of the individual against the needs of the class.  And for those of us with children at home, it’s exactly the same there too.

And the pressure.  Oh, the pressure.  We must not only do our best for them all, but we must make sure that they are making at least acceptable progress in their school work, learning about their verbs and spellings and times tables, and how to do long division before they leave us, and all from their very different starting points.  Little Jonny, with his happily married parents with university degrees and books covering every wall in his big house, must do as well as Jade, who lives in a one bed bedsit with an alcoholic (or more) relative and no breakfast.  Or tea.  Or supper.  It’s a hard, hard job.  We wish that someone would come along and make it easier for us.

Oh, there’s a lot wrong in our educational system, with its standardised demands over a diverse population.  The inspection system is groaning before our very eyes with the knowledge of its own inadequacy.  The statistics are stuttering under an onslaught from teachers who actually know what they are talking about.  Educational funding is being cut and cut (don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t) and the axe is falling on specialist provision because it’s just so expensive, as well as everywhere else.  On the one hand we are told ‘RESULTS!   RESULTS!  RESULTS!’ and on the other, ‘INCLUDE!  INCLUDE!  INCLUDE!  AND ADD IN FLUFFY BUNNIES!’  We, conflicted and confused, are struggling with the strain.

And our society is no better, with its expectations of perfect mothers, with their beach-ready bodies, nano-seconds after giving birth, and perfect babies, checked for acceptability before they are born, before they have even taken their first breath.  We must have perfect families with perfect children who never squabble in the supermarket or throw a tantrum because they wanted to wear the red shoes, not the blue ones.  Our education system, with its issues of increasing control, over teachers and over children, is merely a reflection of the wider world we live in.  We are all looking for something, somebody to blame when the going gets tough, when it doesn’t turn out to be quite so picture perfect as we were led to believe.

We think we have the answers.  We think there is a magic pill to make the kids behave; a quick and easy solution to doing as they are damn well told.  We think that somehow a label will wash all our troubles away.  We think that shutting the special schools and moving the children to a mainstream one, with a helpful adult in tow, one who has experience in working in care, or who has intimate knowledge of the local population is the answer.  We think that somehow, after we’ve spent the money on the equipment that somehow everything will be OK.  The nice little disabled kid, the one who is so loving, and always happy, never sad or cross or a pain in the neck with their constant getting up too early in the summer mornings will fit in just fine.  We don’t like it when we find out that nothing is ever easy, that children, with or without disabilities, never stick to our unexamined rules, and we look for someone to blame.  Someone who is not us.

But let me tell you a story.  Let me tell you a story about the man who has been the love of my life since I was eighteen years old; the father of my children.  Let me tell you of the day we were told that our firstborn son had Down’s syndrome. We didn’t cry together.  We didn’t even say very much.  We each went on a super-fast readjustment journey we told each other about later with glasses of wine and talked over telly.  ‘I just thought to myself,’ he said, as he told me of his dark drive home, leaving the wife and child in their hospital beds, ‘that it’s not me who has to live his life.  It’s him.’

So the next time you feel like a moan; the next time you feel like telling the world how it is, how our school system fails those with additional needs when it forces them to fit into an inflexible and ill-trained system, the next time you want to stand up for the needs of the many over the needs of the few, the next time you want to point out how hard teachers’ lives are and the difficulty they have in providing an education for a child with complex special needs you think about that.  The next time you think it’s acceptable to give voice to the attitude that says ‘if that child is in my child’s class, I’m moving mine out,’ you think long and hard about what you are saying.

You think about the real lives that people with Down’s syndrome live, the confusion, the prejudice, the bullying and the abuse, and you turn the blame to where it properly lies.  You don’t turn it on their parents, whose job it is to stand up for their child’s rights.  And you don’t turn it on the child.  You don’t ever centre it there.  Your job is to break down barriers, not create them.

Face to Face

I’ve been a very lucky girl recently.  Not only was I given a digital SLR camera for Christmas (I’ve wanted one for, like, aaaages), but a couple of weekends ago, I also got the lesson to go with it.  It was the day of the General Election result, so I have to admit, I wasn’t really in the mood, but, when my teacher arrived, told me that she used to be a social worker and was now a teacher, I heaved a sigh of relief, and we punctuated the lesson with rather gloomy checks on our mobile phones (and comparisons of our new apps).

There’s an awful lot I didn’t know about my camera.  I mean, I’ve been super super beyond chuffed with it and some of the results have made me skip around in a way most inappropriate to a lady of my years.  (I’ve been blogging a photo a week; if you’re interested, you can see my choices here.)  I didn’t know, for instance, that the intelligent part of the auto setting is basically a whole load, thousands, I think, of pre-programmed settings, and the camera goes for the one that seems the most likely.  It’s really very clever.  The almost very first photo I took with it blew me away.

Mind you, after she’d explained how it worked, she looked me in the eye and said, ‘but you aren’t going to use that any more,’ and I, meekly, nodded.  I could always put it back when she had gone, I thought to myself.  She turned off the intelligent auto, and proceeded to give me a whirlwind tour of apertures and shutter speeds and ISO values and colour balance and lens lengths and focus and how they all work together to take the picture you want, rather than the one the on-board computer thinks you should have.

I mean, don’t get me wrong.  The tech is a fabulous thing.  I’ve always loved the gadgets and toys.  But the thing is, you can let it take over, ohm so easily.  You can hide behind it, and, instead of going to talk to someone, you send that email, the one you can’t guarantee they read.    You can let it fly your plane, and hope that it knows what to do when it comes to landing it on a river, or an abandoned airfield should an engine cut out; that everything will work out fine when the out of the ordinary occurs.  Or instead of marking the work yourself, if you’ll excuse my edu-obsession, you can feed it into the computer to do it for you, to reduce that workload.  Or use it to help you create those groups, get your teaching precision perfect, trusting that a letter or a number, winking on a computer screen, will tell you everything you need to know about a child.   You can let it take that photo, and cross your fingers over the results.

But then she took my tech and she turned it off – and I was blown away all over again with the results.  Instead of this:

001I got this:

062

There he is, my boy, out in the sunshine, enjoying the day.

 

 

World View

I have to admit that I have been taken by surprise at how emotional I feel about the General Election.  There I was, preparing myself for another five years of coalition politics, of one hue or another, and, instead, here I am, presented with a Tory Party majority.  I’ve actually cried.  I couldn’t bring myself to smile at people last Friday, such was my dismay.  The narratives of welfare cuts (£12bn of them) and benefit scroungers echo round my numbed brain.  The ‘me’ rather than ‘us’ agenda makes me want to weep all over again.

It’s not as if I don’t believe in individual responsibility.  I’m pretty sure that, with Sam as my son, we could be entitled to all sorts of things we don’t claim.  When I filled in the parental part of his Education Health Care plan at the beginning of the week it stared me in the face, how little help from outside agencies we actually have.  Social worker?  Nope.  Respite?  Nope.  I was quite surprised when I saw the lack of it all written down.

True to form, I took the opportunity to add as much information as I could possibly squeeze into the (ridiculously small, if you ask me, but then I accept, I suppose, that not everyone has a much to write about their own child as me) boxes, and, equally typically, the moment it dropped into the post box at the end of my road, I thought of all the other things I should have written; all the other thoughts about how we could plan for Sam’s future that tumbled into my brain as that letter tumbled away.  It’s always the way.

And those things that I missed out, they have echoed for longer than I thought they would.  They dominated the conversation I had on Wednesday with the Educational Psychologist.  I bent my mum’s ear, and possibly my dad’s too, over the weekend.  You see, I am worried about Sam’s future.

Not the long distant one, the one where he is an adult and all sorts of scary things lurk, no.  I don’t really think about that, despite being asked about it on that form.  (I wrote that I hoped for the same things that I hope for my younger, typically developing children – that they would find someone to love them, be happy and do things in life that enable them to be independent and live with dignity – I resisted the temptation to write that I hoped he would win the lottery and pay off my mortgage, in case you were curious.)  I put that future to the back of my mind long ago.

No, the bit of the future I am worried about is the next little bit, the bit that is full of growing independence and fun times and friends.  The teenage years.  It’s not that Sam doesn’t have friends.  His sense of belonging at his wonderful school is a palpable thing.  He charges in through the gates, on a weekday morning, or for a weekend club, without so much as a by your leave or a backward glance.  He goes to a youth club for young people with special needs, and there he mooches about with his mates, enthusiastically joining in with the organised activities.

No, the bit that bothers me, funnily enough, is when he is out with us.  Those times, when we are out shopping, and a girl who was in his primary class says hello, and he doesn’t recognise her, or we go to the sailing club and he wants to join in, or invite other children to play, and doesn’t quite know how, that’s when I worry.

You see, up until very recently, there has always been someone, usually an older and often an older female someone, who has taken Sam under their wing.  He hasn’t needed to do much more than dance about in front of them before someone has taken pity on him and included him in whatever game they are playing, but not any more.  Not now his voice has deepened, the first shave has occurred and he is so much bigger and stronger.  The balance has changed.

Sam is no longer one of the little ones, no longer one of the ones that the older kids automatically look after.  He is no longer the one that everyone wants to play with, the specialness of his condition rubbing off on them, much to their delight.  When we go out and about and join in with things outside of the town in which we live, there isn’t a chance that any of the children he went to primary school with will be there.  There is no reason why any of the children he meets in these situations should have a shred of understanding of who he is, or know how to communicate with him.  The ‘play with me dance’ means nothing to them.

And Sam, for all his desire to play with his peers, to join in with the games of the older boys in particular, finds himself in No Man’s Land, and I, watching from the sidelines, find myself unsure of how to help.  Should I intervene?  Should I ask the boys to let him join their game?  Should I translate?  Or should I stand back, resist the urge to barge in and embarrass him with my mother’s desire to make it all better?

For this, I need a bit of help.  If Sam is to learn how to make his way in mainstream life without always being the one who is pitied, or helped, without him being forced into a false state of continued childhood, I need other people, my community, to help me.  We need to work together.

And last week’s General Election result, with its confirmation of the ‘me’ over ‘us’ agenda that is running rampant through our society, echoed up and down the classrooms of the country with divisive policies like performance related pay and punitive inspections that force us into cowering with fear and working competitively rather than cooperatively, compounds my fear.

It’s times like this, when I am presented, fairly and squarely, with evidence that, for all I live and work in the cooperative bubble that is edu-world, how strongly we reiterate to the children we teach, day in day out, that we have responsibilities towards each other and not just ourselves, that I realise how differently I see the world, and I feel sad.

It’s why I’ve been a bit quiet.

 

Spots

Sam is not very happy about being 14.  Well, when I mean unhappy, I don’t mean his is dischuffed with everything about it (not in the way I was, it must be said; I was one of the lead princesses of teenaged anxt, mostly the self-obsessed kind, after I got over worrying about The Bomb going off while I was at school, unable to bridge the nine-mile gap between there and home), no.  He’s positively in love with some of it.  He takes great delight in his deepening voice (it took me a while to realise it had happened and that he was experimenting in some kind of ‘how low can I go’ fashion, and then I instantly regretted not recording his little boy piping tones), the arrival of hair in new places has him vociferously declaring his oncoming manhood with great joy and equal amazement.  No, what Sam doesn’t like is spots.

It reminds me a bit of when he had chicken pox when he was seven.  Oh no, the doctor reassured me, as we were about to set sail for a camping holiday on the Isle of Wight, he’s over the worst.  He won’t get any spottier.  Go on your holiday and enjoy yourselves.  How wrong could she have been?  Not only did he get poorlier and more and more irritable, but he got spots upon his spots.  There was hardly a patch of skin upon which there wasn’t some sort of pustule.  When he caught sight of himself in a mirror or a shop window, he cried.

He is rather in love with his image, it has to be said.  Not his photograph, no, he does far too much gurning or sticking his tongue out in cheeky fashion and just the right/wrong moment, depending on your perspective, for that.  What Sam really loves is his reflection.  He’s always loved it, even from when he was tiny.  One of the first toys I ever bought him was a plastic mirror.  It sat within a Velcro frame, attached to a squashy triangular wedge and I used to place him on his tummy and watch while he pushed himself up on his little arms and cooed a self-absorbed conversation.

When he was older, and before I had two babies to juggle, I used to take him shopping, and park the buggy in front of the biggest mirror I could find while I rummaged around and looked for clothes that a) might fit, and b) didn’t look too hideous on.  These days, one of the reasons he chose to colonise the spare room, abandoning his little brother to a lonely occupation of the bunk bed, is the large sliding mirrored wardrobe doors, into which he performs, ‘singing’ along to his various CDs.

But the spots.  Unlike the appearance of facial hair (his first shave, a couple of weeks ago, accompanied by R’s, and later my impressions of How to Shave a Top Lip – ignored), the arrival of spots has not been a cause for celebration.  Instead, each fresh crop (they seem to come in waves, do they always come in waves?) brings a call for reassurance that he is not, in fact, coming down with another bad case of chicken pox, and a sucking of the teeth to indicate the ouchiness.  He is not impressed.

Of course, he is not helped by the fact that he objects to washing of the soap and hot water variety.  He doesn’t like to wash his hands, along with his hatred of the cutting of the fingernails, and he certainly objects most strenuously to the washing of the hair with shampoo.  He makes an almighty fuss and moan about the whole shebang before eventually giving in and dodging the drops for as short a time as possible.  I bought him a pack of medicated facial wipe things from the chemist, in an attempt to minimise the offending pimples, but, to be frank with you, the shower option is much better, in all sorts of ways, so with it, we do persist.

I do not claim that it is an easy thing to do, to insist upon a certain level of personal hygiene.  Sam is not one of those compliant, biddable children who do as they’re told, no questions asked, and neither is he small enough to pick him up and dunk him in the bath, regardless of his wishes.  His will, these days, is not to be overridden lightly.  His cooperation must be engaged, for all sorts of reasons, not least cleanliness.

I know it’s the long way round.  I know that’s it’s a faff to keep having to go over the same old same old, to keep reading that leaflet about smelly bits and washing bits.  But if we don’t, if we cave in, give in, allow him to take the lead upon a matter about which he knows so little, for the sake of a quiet life, in the long run, we’re not doing him any favours.

The kid has Down’s syndrome.  He doesn’t need to be spotty and smelly as well.